Many New Zealanders will on Monday night taste freedom from all Covid-19 restrictions for a second time during the pandemic, after Jacinda Ardern removed all domestic rules for much of the country.
Some restrictions will remain on the largest city, Auckland, for a further two weeks, although the rules will be eased somewhat as health officials said a cluster of cases in the city did not appear to have generated any fresh instances of the virus in the past week.
“Our actions collectively have managed to get the virus under control,” the prime minister told a news conference on Monday. “We are in a strong position to make our next move down the alert settings.”
Celebrations began on social media as New Zealanders heard the news.
What does Level 1 mean again? I can go to the pub with all of my mates, I can go watch the rugby without restrictions, and I can again contemplate joining a gym to get fit but never actually go. Not because of germs but because of who I am as a person.
— Daniel Olander (@Daniel_Olander) September 21, 2020
At 11.59pm on Monday, all Covid-19 restrictions on the country outside Auckland will be jettisoned – among them, a requirement to wear masks on public transport and planes, and a 100-person limit on social gatherings. The move to so-called “level 1” rules means a return largely to normal life.
At the same time on Wednesday, Auckland’s rules will ease further, allowing gatherings of up to 100 – instead of 10. Businesses will be required to maintain physical distancing and masks will still be mandatory on planes and public transport.
New Zealand’s government had jettisoned all domestic Covid-19 restrictions in early June after the country appeared to have eliminated the virus. It followed a strict lockdown of the entire country in March and April.
Later that month, cases began to be diagnosed in managed isolation facilities at New Zealand’s borders for returning travellers, who must spend two weeks in government-run quarantine. In August, an outbreak in the community in Auckland – the origin of which is still unknown – plunged the city back into one of the strictest levels of lockdown, and raised Covid-19 alert levels for the rest of New Zealand.
But the virus does not appear to have spread outside Auckland, and cases in the city are easing. There are 62 active cases in New Zealand, 33 of them in the Auckland cluster, and 29 imported cases in quarantine facilities.
“There is no costless response to Covid, no matter what your strategy is,” Ardern, who faces an election in October, told reporters on Monday. She added that following the country’s lockdowns, New Zealand’s economy was “more open than that of nearly any other country in the world”.
But the prime minister – who had urged against complacency after the country first eliminated the virus – exhorted New Zealanders to continue using the government’s contact tracing app, employ good hygiene, and stay at home if they were unwell.
The easing of restrictions means that politicians will have more freedom to hold campaign events. The rules on gatherings had curbed the ability of parties to campaign in traditional ways ahead of the 17 October election.
Ardern said her centre-left Labour party was likely to continue to eschew “larger rallies”, even as gathering limits eased.
Auckland’s Covid-19 restrictions will next be reviewed by the cabinet on 7 October.